No Swachh Bharat without Caste Annihilation


by Dr Anil Teltumbde


Narendra Modi’s theatrics seem unstoppable. Within the last six months that he has been prime minister, he has engaged in too many of them but achieved very little of the acchhe din he promised the people. On Teachers’ Day, he cancelled the customary holiday for schoolkids and made them come to school to listen to him on television. On Gandhi Jayanti he again cancelled the commemoratory national holiday and made people wield jhadoos to launch the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. While most of his theatrics evoked mild controversies, this one, potentially the most controversial and problem-ridden, seems to have gone well with most people – probably because Modi was doing a Gandhi here; because he anticipated some of the scepticism and quashed it; because the issue was too important for the image of India as a “great nation” to create controversies. But beyond all this, the main reason for the silence was the collective ignorance of the causality of unclean India being rooted in the caste culture and, more so, the need for its eradication through the annihilation of caste.


Causality of Uncleanliness

There is little doubt that India stands out in the world as a uniquely unclean country. There is no official index of uncleanliness to compare countries but few may dispute that the ubiquity of filth is almost unique to India. Uncleanliness is uncritically attributed to poverty. Whether it is at the individual level or at the level of the country, poverty results in the lack of basic sanitation infrastructure and operating wherewithal to maintain cleanliness. Since India has widespread poverty, its filth is also tacitly linked with it. But this association does not hold. There are poorer countries than India but, in terms of cleanliness, they still look better than her. It is commonplace in India to observe people defecating all around public toilets wherever they exist. Cleanliness is more of a cultural matter than poverty.


The poor have to labour in conditions of filth. As landless labourers they work in muddy fields, as non-farm workers working in construction or in extraction industries, they labour in a still more mucky and dusty environment. But still they maintain a functional cleanliness. The poor obviously cannot have cleanliness identified with riches but they innately know the importance of functional hygiene and cleanliness. One can easily see this in the homesteads of the poorest of the poor in villages and tribal hamlets. Even in urban slums, this is largely true; despite many odds, the poor maintain a functional cleanliness within their hutments. The reason behind this is that they just cannot afford the cost of falling sick because of lack of hygiene and cleanliness. The filth gets basically produced in the civic realm and it is disproportionately contributed by the rich. This could be associated with the disproportionate damage done by the rich countries to the global environment.


What then explains the uncleanliness of India? The answer lies in Indian culture which is nothing but caste culture. This culture externalises the responsibility of maintaining cleanliness to a particular caste. It stigmatises work as unclean and workers as untouchables. Although the crude form of untouchability may not be pervasively practised today, it does exist to a significant extent as shown by an Action Aid Survey of 50 villages conducted in 2000, and the survey in 2009 by the Ahmedabad-based Navsarjan Trust and the Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, which covered Modi’s Gujarat. More than untouchability, a caste ethos is pervasively reflected in the behaviour of Indians. This ethos, which effectively “casteises” and genders various tasks, persists despite the spread of education, globalisation and urbanisation. While the world over people have imbibed a “civic sense” and primarily bear the responsibility to maintain cleanliness, only secondarily relying upon sanitary workers, in India, people derive a sense of (upper-caste) superiority in littering the place, expecting it to be cleaned by the lower-caste scavenger. If a small community of these scavengers, treated worse than shit and exploited to the hilt, is vested with the responsibility of clearing the filth generated by 1,250 million people with impunity, the country is destined to remain unclean. It is akin to a small band of kshatriyas being given the responsibility of defence, which gave India a history of slavery, or a small brahmin caste with a monopoly of knowledge, which left India ignorant and backward.


Muted Casteism

It follows that unless this caste culture is eradicated and people themselves internalise the responsibility towards cleanliness, no amount of campaigns is going to succeed. Surprisingly, there is no mention of the c word in Modi’s mission, which smacks of the usual denial mode of the elite that castes no longer exist – they are a non-issue. It will never occur to Modi that his act of beginning the cleanliness drive from the Valmiki Colony actually reinforced the association between Valmikis and scavenging. Gandhi had also paternalistically done the same; without speaking against castes, he just displayed his mahatmahood by living among the Bhangis of Delhi. Modi actually borrows his snippets of wisdom from Gandhi when he writes about Valmikis:


I do not believe that they [valmikis] have been doing this job just to sustain their livelihood. ... At some point of time, somebody must have got the enlightenment that it is their duty to work for the happiness of the entire society and the Gods; that they have to do this job bestowed upon them by Gods; and that this job of cleaning up should continue as an internal spiritual activity for centuries (Karmyog, collection of speeches by Modi, pp 48-49).


These “spiritual” remarks expectedly met with harsh condemnation from dalits in Tamil Nadu, who burnt his effigies in different parts of the state. But even after two years he repeated the same remark while addressing a conference of safai karmacharis, saying, “A priest cleans a temple every day before prayers; you also clean the city like a temple. You and the temple priest work alike.” In mimicking Gandhi, Modi only betrayed his monumental ignorance of Ambedkar’s attack on Gandhi’s packaging of the ugly reality of castes with religio-spiritual humbug, which by now is known even to schoolchildren. Modi is also blissfully ignorant about the contemporary Safai Karmachari Andolan’s struggle to abolish dry latrines wherein, apart from civil society, the Indian Railways figure as the major culprit. And, the horrific episode at Savanur in Karnataka, where the safai karmacharis, in their desperation, protested against their harassment by pouring human excreta over their heads in public. Like castes, the government has been in perpetual denial mode about the issue of dry latrines or the plight of manual scavengers. The only viable meaning of Modispeak is to serve the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) strategy of brahminising dalits so as to neutralise their anti-brahminism and realise its Hindutva agenda.


The main motivation behind this swachh Bharat campaign is basically the supremacist obsession of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had misled it in the past to declare that India was shining in 2004 when 60% of its population was defecating in the open. It should be said to the credit of Modi that he has foregrounded this standing shame and decided to construct 12 crore toilets at an estimated cost of Rs 1.96 lakh crore during his current tenure. But even here he had a sleight of hand, relying majorly upon neo-liberal philanthropy, i e, corporate social responsibility. As he skilfully sidetracked government responsibility in creating sanitation infrastructure, he has evaded it even in creating operational jobs by invoking Gandhian spirituality to ask people to put in voluntary labour of a minimum two hours a week. If that is what is needed for a swachh Bharat, the estimated voluntary labour will be equivalent of 40 million jobs as against the less than 18 million currently in the entire public sector. If one views this idea from a feasibility perspective, it smacks of the usual governmental assertion, high on rhetoric and low on results.


Goebbelesque Rhetoric

Undoubtedly, Narendra Modi, more than any other prime minister, has impressed a cross-section of people, particularly his foreign audiences. However, there is not much of credible evidence as yet, either before or after he became prime minister, of having delivered what he promised or claimed to deliver. A multibillion rupee Goebbelesque campaign during the last Lok Sabha elections projected Gujarat under Modi as an epitome of development and won him the prime minister’s post but the truth was otherwise. Gujarat was, at best, a middling state on most developmental parameters. There was nothing spectacular about it except for the autocratic governance of its chief minister and the red-carpet welcome it accorded to corporate honchos. The much flaunted vibrancy of Gujarat was confined to these two factors. From the viewpoint of the masses, it was as good or as bad as many other states, and certainly worse than some. While any meaningful observation on Modi’s performance as the prime minister over just the six odd months that have gone by may be erroneous, all the dazzle, dynamism and captivating oratory with which he has mesmerised people to see him as an extraordinary leader, here as well as abroad, reminds us of his tenure in Gujarat, high on rhetoric and low on results.


As the chief minister of Gujarat, he had launched a similar campaign, “Nirmal Gujarat” in 2007, and made tall claims. But his record on waste management and pollution in Gujarat has been appalling. Rohit Prajapati, a Gujarat-based environmental activist, has provided succinct details making use of the facts in the “Report of the Task Force on Waste to Energy”, dated 12 May 2014, by the Planning Commission.


Notwithstanding all this, Modi should be given credit for highlighting the issue of toilets and cleanliness, when those who governed over the last 60 years slept over the fact of India defecating in the open. He deserves commendation even though he creates little confidence in the accomplishment of this mission. As proposed, it is going to be one more mega opportunity for corporate investment. The biggest flaw of Modi’s mission so far is that he has totally missed the point if he really meant business. He must understand that India cannot be swachh without the caste ethos being completely eradicated.



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